Moving with the times
PUBLISHED: 11:33 27 October 2015 | UPDATED: 11:33 27 October 2015
Lindsay Want whizzes off to the wonderful Ipswich Transport Museum - Britain’s largest transport collection devoted to just one town – as it gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary
Moving stories come in all shapes and sizes, especially at the Ipswich Transport Museum.
Take the Georgian sedan chair whose owner fell on hard times and could only afford one footman. Or the gorgeous green and cream Tramcar No 33 which once wobbled its way along the county town’s Tavern Street and finished up as an apple store in Claydon. From among the milk floats, motorbikes, mowers and model railways rise restoration stories of an early horse-drawn tramcar, once dismissed as a load of old cobblers, and later rescued from its plight as a shoe-repairer’s shed.
Every aisle of the old Priory Heath Trolleybus Depot just off the Felixstowe Road acts as a real tribute to the engineering experts and manufacturing masterminds who put Ipswich on the industrial map. Each exhibit rolls back the years or gets the cogs whirring. Nowhere revolves more around a real pride of place or, of course, personal journeys.
From little acorns (and a flying pig)
So where did it all begin half a century ago? And how did the Ipswich Transport Museum grow to become one of Britain’s finest, more than on a par with the Manchester Museum of Transport or the Oxford Bus Museum?
Sitting comfortably in the corner of the Sunbeam Tearoom, smiling away and sporting a smart pinney in readiness to pop up and pour the next cuppa, Eric Mouser must feel a little bit like the cat that’s got the cream. For this son of a Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries coachbuilder, the vibrant vehicle-filled world around him is very much a dream come true.
“So few people realise that Ipswich was such a pioneer in transport,” he explains. “It saw it all and was one of the first towns to replace trams with trolleybuses. It was the 1963 closure of the trolleybus system which spurred my interest really.” He pauses a moment, looking up through the café window into the exhibition hall beyond.
“Everything here started with my ‘Flying Pig’,” he smiles, “my one little diesel bus, a 1940s 20-seater Dennis Ace from the Eastern Counties fleet. Then there was a fire engine, then a battery-powered electric lorry.”
Snouting about in the Suffolk countryside to find ‘archived’ trolleybuses, Eric and his friends soon had a sizeable collection on their hands. As their Ipswich Transport Preservation Group steadily got offered more vehicles, the decision came to limit it to just transport items ‘used or made in Ipswich’. In 1988, following years of storage in Coddenham, Needham Market and sites all over the county town, the collection was eventually brought under one, very pertinent roof at the old trolleybus depot, thanks to Ipswich Borough Council. At last restoring vehicles to working order and the making of the Ipswich Transport Museum could really start in earnest.
Just the ticket
Shortly after occupying the depot site, 40th anniversary celebrations for the ADX-1 double decker – the first of six motorbuses commissioned to trial Ipswich suburb services in the 1950s – attracted a wider audience. It included one 17-year-old with a true passion for the past and real staying power who went on to organise 14 years of Come & Ride on our Buses events and is now the museum’s chairman.
“I’d go to school on the slightly later 63 buses,” reminisces Mark Smith, still brimful of enthusiasm and charming, boyish grins. “They had the luxury of a heater on the lower deck, formica-backed seats and fluorescent lighting,” he recalls. “But it’s surprising how many local children these days have never been on a bus, and that’s a great pity when Ipswich has such a rich transport heritage.“
Mark adores the museum dynamics, how purely through the time, skill and enthusiasm of teams of dedicated volunteers all sorts of vehicles travel from rusty to restored, sharing their transformation journeys with visitors along the way. Ultimately though, it’s all about ‘bums on seats’.
“We offer historic vehicle rides at many of our special event days,” explains Mark, ”but just letting visitors climb on and off and experience the vehicles for themselves at the museum is so important. And our school groups absolutely love it, of course.”
On board the 1904, super-shiny Ipswich Corporation Electric Tramcar No 33, volunteer Colin Prime couldn’t agree more.
“Youngsters so enjoy playing at conductors, ringing the bell or punching the tickets, but everyone’s fascinated to learn that this tram was probably how many Ipswich people ‘saw’ electricity for the first time. It must have seemed unbelievable to them, all magically lit up and moving on its own with no horse or steam engine pulling it.”
Unbelievable too is just how museum volunteer hands have made such light work of truly massive restoration projects over the years. The old depot provides original workshop areas and a labyrinth of air-raid shelters for invaluable storage space, but with an uncompromising, ‘do-it-properly-or-not-at-all’ mentality, each meticulous restoration owes much to sheer determination and ingenuity, craftsmanship, love and teamwork.
“Many of our volunteers are highly skilled, retired local folk who spent years working in our great engineering and coachbuilding firms based in the area,“ says Ted King, chairman of the Friends of the Museum and himself a retired electrician.
“Keeping these local skills alive and having the opportunity to pass them on is all part of what makes the museum so special.” Whether climbing into the rare fibre-glass cab of the restored British Road Services Bristol lorry, or sharing memories about those first Ipswich motorbuses, Ted clearly couldn’t be more proud of his town’s heritage, or his colleagues’ hard work.
By the bare bones of the 1894 horse-drawn Tram 7, he explains how exchanging experiences with the Leeds Transport Historical Society is proving invaluable to the restoration project and how just last year, the 1949 Trolleybus No 105 gave delighted passengers the run around at Lowestoft’s East Anglian Transport Museum after a nine-year restoration journey. On so many levels, everything seems fuelled by the joy of sharing.
All hands on deck
“It’s such a lovely atmosphere here,” confirms Pamela Peachey who joined the museum’s small band of volunteers together with husband Graham. With the warmest of welcomes and gentlest enthusiasm, the spritely former garage owner is just at home here selling tickets in the shop or brandishing a tea-towel in the café as guiding visitors through some of the exhibits and helping young imaginations travel back in time.
“It’s wonderful to see how the school children respond to the vehicles and to help them to understand the past. But then everyone loves chatting away here. The place is so friendly and you sort of lose yourself in it all. We’ve only been here two years, but it could be forever.”
Looking back to the future
After 50 years and many milestones, what next then for the Ipswich Transport Museum? The place has really been motoring since the complete depot refurbishment 15 years ago, so an extension to the lease has to be top of the wish list, then much needed education and meeting facilities could be added.
Mark suggests an early Ransomes combine harvester for the Cutting Edge exhibition. Ted wonders about rails for the horse-drawn tramcar. And founder Eric? Well, the ‘Flying Pig’ has proved a 50-year restoration project and box-less 25,000 piece jigsaw with no picture to follow, but it will be finally taking centre stage for the 2015 celebrations. After that there’s always the 1934 trolleybus originally built by his father of course, waiting patiently in the wings for its restoration day to come.
Ipswich Transport Museum, Old Trolleybus Depot, Cobham Road, Ipswich IP13 9JD. Open 11am-4pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays (April-November), also 1pm-4pm, Wednesday (June-September) and most school holidays. Programme of special event days also available. For details/admission prices visit www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk or call 01473 715666.